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Once upon a Lenten season, I was preparing a meditation on Jesus’ cry of dereliction in the Gospel of Mark, the enigmatic: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. Jesus’ cry presents us with any number of troubling questions.

One question is emotionally freighted: If God is a loving parent, how could God forsake a child, either Jesus or any one of us?

Another is theologically freighted: If Jesus is fully God, how could he forsake himself? The doctrine of the Trinity is not a net fine enough to catch this text. With such questions on my heart, I approached this text in the gospel and looked for clues as to what Mark might be saying about divine dereliction.

Jesus’ cry of dereliction does not stand on its own. Mark carefully constructed the concluding scenes of his gospel to show that Jesus is forsaken by every segment of society before he is finally and climatically forsaken by God. In a series of scenes, we see that Jesus is forsaken by:

  • Judas, Peter, and the rest of the disciples—And all of them deserted him and fled (cf. 14:43ff.);
  • Pilate—Wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified (15:15);
  • soldiers—After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him (15:20);
  • passers-by—And those who passed by derided him… (15:29);
  • priests and scribes—In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves…. (15:31ff.);
  • robbers—Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. (15:32).

I found Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ forsakenness too much to bear. God joins the ranks of Jesus’ disciples, Pilate, the soldiers, passers-by, the Jewish leaders, and the robbers. Jesus is utterly forsaken and dies utterly alone.

I could not imagine what Mark might be saying to his community of believers, and I could not imagine what I might say to mine. I had been raised to believe that God’s steadfast love was just that, steadfast, and I had taken comfort in the belief that I am “not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” I put my notes on Jesus’ cry of dereliction into a file, never to see the light of day.

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By chance that same Lenten season, I happened to hear a sermon by a well-known and well-traveled preacher on Jesus’ cry of dereliction. He confessed that he had avoided preaching Jesus’ cry for twenty-five years. However, he had recently learned more about the physiological effects of crucifixion, affording him a new understanding of what Jesus meant when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” During the ordeal of crucifixion, the weight of the body on the arms causes a paralysis which begins in the arms and gradually extends to the rest of the body. When the paralysis reaches the diaphragm, the victim is unable to breathe and slowly suffocates.

This well-known preacher proceeded to note the close correspondence between Mark’s description of the crucifixion and the description of suffering Psalm 22. Not only is Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” the first line of this psalm, but a number of encounters in the psalm parallel those of Jesus on the cross, among them “all who see me mock at me,” and “they divide my clothes among themselves; for my clothing they cast lots.”

Considering this background information, this preacher concluded that Jesus was reviewing Psalm 22 in his mind as he hung on the cross, but was only able to gasp the first lines because he was short of breath. Therefore, what seems to be a cry of dereliction is in actuality an affirmation of the presence of God in human suffering. For while the psalm begins with a statement of forsakenness, it does not end there. Jesus died with the closing words of the Psalm also in mind: “…he has not hid his face from me, but has heard, when I cried to him…future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”

This was a well-known preacher, and his sermon was as always well-delivered; but I was not moved by it. It seemed to me to be an example of exegetical alchemy, a process of magically transforming an inconvenient biblical truth into one that was easier to believe.

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Mark had carefully constructed his portrayal of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion to emphasize that God-forsakenness was a reality in Jesus’ life and by extension a reality in the lives of the followers of Jesus.

We followers of Jesus know times of trial when Jesus’ words are on our lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” times when we are sick unto death, times when our loved ones abandon us, times when our neighbors huddle hungry and harangued in refugee camps and God seems so far away.

We share this painful reality with Jesus, and in sharing our God-forsakenness, we are enigmatically not alone, mysteriously not forsaken. Wherever God-forsakenness brings us–to the dust of Sheol or the fires of Hell–and however it torments us, Jesus has been there, and we wait in hope that God will raise us from that place in the same way that God raised him.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart recently retired after a long career of teaching Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

10 Comments

  • mstair says:

    Great considerations today!

    For me, Jesus’ cry carries some comfort. Jesus, The Man-God dies just like we die … feeling alone. The real truth of our whole lives –
    (we mentally beat away each second of our lives or else it would consume our sanity)
    is that we have felt alone our whole lives here in this earthly phase. Jesus referred to us as “captives” to it – imprisoned by our separation from God. Only God, The Father has the power to grant escape from death to life, from separation to unification. Jesus died in the Faith of Psalm 22:24 … “he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.” And for us, just like for Jesus , “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Tom, for your take on being forsaken by God. So many different takes on these verses. One could write volumes as to what Mark had in mind when he penned these verses. Was he speaking only of Jesus, or was he speaking of his audience’s feelings of abandonment by God? Either way, such feelings of abandonment might feel common when you believe in a personal God who numbers the hairs of your head and cares for the sparrows and adorns the flowers of the field. Everyone feels abandoned by such a personal God at times because bad things happen to everyone and some more than others. And God is personally involved in everyone’s life? Right? Maybe God isn’t as involved personally as we’d like to think. Personal experience certainly bears that out. Common sense dictates an often absentee God from our experiences. Maybe Jesus’ feelings of abandonment were more in his mind than reality. After all we are told that God raised him from the dead. That’s not abandonment.

  • I don’t have any theories about this. But what if it isn’t mere “exegetical alchemy” to put it together with all of Psalm 22? Maybe that psalm was on Jesus’s mind a lot, maybe for years. It is possible that it is that simple. Thanks for shining a light on a painful verse that merits our gaze.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Yes, “we share this painful reality with Jesus.” When we are plunged into the cold darkness of depression or grievous loss. And sometimes even when we are not, like Mother Theresa, we painfully feel the absence of God. On the cross, Jesus shared that part of our humanity with us, enough to “melt my eyes to tears.”

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Tom,
    Thanks for looking at the unvarnished and unsoftened cry of dereliction. I have experienced some pretty dark (rending of clothes) experiences of depression and anguish from which no mere logical move to later verses could bring comfort. In this moment of utter despair, the hope that Jesus’ empathy did not leave me alone was the only small sliver of light. I do not think a sliver of hope defangs the experience of it’s pain, but it may be the only thing that helps us from slipping into an overwhelming darkness from which we cannot escape. I do not know what Jesus was thinking. I only know that I am not alone, and in my experience that was enough, and for that I am eternally grateful.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    I always like the line of my friend the Bible teacher and commentator Frederick Dale Bruner. In answer to those who claim Jesus was doing a theological exposition of Psalm 22, Bruner rejoins, “When you are hanging on a cross, it is not the moment to do a Bible Study!”

  • Helen P says:

    Thank you for this. The lines remind me of what my sister Barb referred to as “divine child abuse.”
    …and there are times I am sure when many of us have felt both deserted and forsaken by God.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I am reading Jeremiah in the daily lectionary for the Daily Office, and God’s abandonment is very raw there as well. And to me the operative word in the cry is “Why”? The unanswerable word.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Why is used over 500 times in the Bible and Jeremiah actually uses it 37 times, plus 32 times in Psalms, and 23 times in Job. It may be unanswerable but we are allowed and encouraged to ask God, “Why?” whether it is after a year of hiding from a virus, or a year of fighting cancer, or running from enemies. The fact that Jesus was also asking it shows the paradoxical reality of being 100% human as well as 100% God, just as the scene it the Garden when he asked God, if possible, remove this cup from me…

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    I appreciate the use of the phrase “cry of dereliction” It got me curious to look “derelict” up in dictionary for its semantics and etymology. Akin to “relinquish” (surrender, release, give up)!

    Why God would you surrender your control, your sovereignty, your own bodily life? Why, God, did you release all of those privileges to bully Death and siblings, Rejection, Oppression, Imperialism, Morality Status Codes? What could motivate you to give up that much power? Were you still God in the moments you had overflowing love and pain and anger and terror and grief, yet Death and siblings took the reins, snatched the ownership over you?

    Can you still be God even while in an incontinent phase of existing? God, thank you for unveiling yourself so fully to the onlookers in that moment of time. Thank you for revealing through that love shriek of intra-personal crisis that you have a generative mode of being which is not at all akin to the overassessed modes of control, upperhandedness, invulnerability.

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